Freeing Our Usefulness, Proper 18 (C) - 2013

September 7, 2013

Imagine coming to church some Sunday morning and reading an entire book of the Bible. In fact, you just did.

Well, almost. To be exact, you just read, or heard read to you, an entire book of the Bible – minus four verses. So, for the sake of completion, here are the missing verses from Paul’s Letter to Philemon, from which our second reading today is taken.

“One thing more,” writes Paul in concluding his letter, “Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

And that is it.

With barely 335 words in the original Greek, the Letter to Philemon is one of the shortest – and some might say most fascinating – books in all Scripture. It could almost be an ancient text or email message. But in spite of its brevity, it is a useful and instructive work for us today.

Let’s take a look.

To begin with, scholars are universally of the opinion that this is one of the genuine Letters of Paul – not just a letter attributed to him. And it is the only one of his epistles that is addressed, not to an entire church or Christian community, but to an individual.

We do not know with certainty all the details behind the letter – who all the characters mentioned were, where the letter was written, or exactly when – but it is clearly an appeal on Paul’s part for one of his companions named Onesimus, a run-away slave who has embraced the Christian faith and found his way to Paul’s inner circle. Interestingly, his master or owner, a fellow named Philemon, is also a Christian – presumably a wealthy merchant of Colossae, and likewise a friend or follower of Paul.

Paul is here sending Onesimus back to Philemon along with this “cover letter,” asking that Onesimus be treated well upon his return and not be punished for his escape or for any damage he may have caused during his servitude. Paul pays tribute to Philemon with kind words of praise – what Martin Luther calls holy flattery – likely in the hope that, as many scholars have surmised, Philemon should allow Onesimus to return and continue his work and ministry with Paul.

Over all, the letter offers intriguing insight into the life of the early church – the implicit acceptance of slavery, for instance, and the fact that rich and poor alike make up the body of the church.

Curious, as well, is the name of Onesimus, the slave, which essentially means “useful” or “profitable” in the original Greek. It pretty much tells us how slave owners viewed their “property” in those days.

Paul, in fact, engages in word play with the name Onesimus or “Useful,” subtly but forcefully suggesting that Onesimus will be more useful or helpful now, continuing to spread the Good News of the gospel as his companion than as – one assumes – a common laborer or servant of Philemon.

There is also implicit irony in the fact that Paul, the self-described “prisoner of Christ Jesus,” is appealing for freedom and leniency on behalf of Onesimus, the escaped slave.

What to make of it all?

Though Paul appeals to Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother,” there is little evidence that humankind has ever learned this simple lesson of human dignity and respect. While we might like to think that slavery today is a thing of the past, tragically it is still with us some 20 centuries after Paul wrote his appeal to Philemon; though we in the West are often blind to its existence and insulated from its devastating consequences. Meanwhile, few modern-day exploited workers have an Apostle like Paul to intervene on their behalf.

There is, by the way, no record of what actually happened as a result of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Was Onesimus freed to continue his work with Paul? We simply do not know. We can only hope that Philemon was swayed by the Apostle’s words and granted Onesimus his freedom. Some ancient commentators even suggest that Onesimus went on to become one of the early bishops of the church. So, perhaps in some spiritual or deeper sense he became “useful” after all in ways previously unimaginable.

Whether we are rich or poor – entrepreneur, salaried or hourly employee, or unemployed – we, too, must become useful. By God’s grace, each of us has the freedom to use our talents and gifts in the service of others in need. “Useful,” then, is for us Christians no longer a pejorative term as it probably was at one time for Onesimus. For us, being useful means living the gospel. It makes us one in Christ and binds us each to the other. Yet it also makes us free – as paradoxically free as was Paul the “prisoner” and Onesimus the slave.

“Prepare a guest room for me,” writes Paul – ever the optimist – near the end of this brief letter from captivity, “for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Needless to say, we will never know if Paul got to use that guest room or not. Perhaps Philemon left the porch light on for him – just in case. But it is tempting to envision Paul, the former prisoner, sitting at table together with Philemon, the former slave-owner, and Onesimus, his former slave, gathered under one roof and sharing Christian fellowship and community – possibly even Eucharist – equals at last in the sight of the Lord.

Scholars sometimes wonder how on earth such a short and private correspondence as Paul’s Letter to Philemon could have survived the centuries and made it into the canon of Scripture. If nothing else, it is surely there to teach us once again the infinite value and worth of each individual person – no matter that person’s background, color, sex, age, language, dress, or social and economic status.

Any slave or “prisoner of Christ Jesus” could tell us as much.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema